Rachel Carson and the Ocean

Americans remember Rachel Carson most for her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, which led to the ban of the pesticide DDT and other toxic chemicals. Her work helped save Bald Eagles, Ospreys, Peregrine Falcons and other species from the brink of extinction and sparked the modern environmental movement. In 1962, when Rachel Carson wrote evocatively in Silent Spring of a town silenced and bereft of bird song in spring, she was already a widely- acclaimed, award-winning author for her best-selling books on the sea.

Rachel Carson’s connection to life along the shores and the majesty and mysteries of the ocean began before she had ever seen the sea. Reading in her dormitory during a raging storm at night as an undergraduate at the Pennsylvania College for Women (PCW), she was taken by a line in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Locksley Hall,” “For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward and I go.” In this moment, Rachel felt intrinsically called to the sea, feeling that her own path lay in its fluid, ever-changing waters. And so, in imagination and in spirit, seaward she went.

Studying for a summer at Woods Hole in Massachusetts after graduating from PCW fueled Rachel’s wonder in the mystery of the sea, roaring, pulsing with life. It also affirmed her scientific desire and curiosity to peer more closely, uncovering those mysteries wavering below the surface. Rachel continued her studies as a graduate student in zoology at Johns Hopkins and then took an editing position at the Bureau of Fisheries (later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), which exposed her to the latest scientific research. Writing for a brochure on fisheries eventually developed into her first ocean book, Under the Sea-Wind, followed by The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea.

Rachel’s writing on the sea marries scientific fact and lyrical prose, making marine life a vibrant reality to her numerous readers. A strong sense of wonder and awe shines through her writing on the sea as well as profound wisdom of life’s inextricable connectivity. In Under the Sea-Wind she wrote, “To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years… is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.”

Our oceans today are not the same oceans Rachel Carson peered into from shores in Massachusetts and in Beaufort, North Carolina, or later along rocky tidal pools in Maine. Our oceans today are acidifying, warming, and filling with plastic and persistent pollutants at alarmingly rapid rates. This threatens both marine life and communities whose livelihoods depend upon the ocean.

In our mission to continue the legacy of Rachel Carson and her reverence for the sea, the Rachel Carson Council strives to spotlight the current state of our oceans and empower citizens to take action. Inspiring action to protect our oceans, we keep alive Rachel’s sense of wonder for the sea. Kindling hope and empathy, we continue to reflect on earth’s interconnectivity and our dependence on earth’s vast waters. For, as Rachel concluded The Sea Around Us,

“all at last return to the sea––to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.”